“I’m very, very proud of you,” said the mother on the phone. “And thank you for being a good student. I love you,” she added. These words must have been music to the ears of Machen Elementary School principals Jennifer Humble and Daryl Crosby.
This conversation was reported by the Daily Press as part of their coverage of Hampton City Schools’ new focus on school climate and culture. Head principal Humble is leading Machen through the new process that is meant to articulate clear cultural expectations, equip students to meet those expectations, and provide opportunities for celebration when students live out the school’s values.
Hampton’s schools began the process at the start of the school year. For Humble and her staff that meant deciding on the values that they wanted to see demonstrated, by students and staff, throughout any school day. They decided on: safety, thoughtfulness, appropriateness, and respect.
Administrators and staff constantly refer back to the school’s values in their conversations with students, cementing for them the definitions and reasoning behind the choices. As Heather Peterson, climate and culture coordinator for Hampton City Schools, says, “‘Be respectful’ is probably on the wall of almost any school that you walk into, but we often don’t take the time to talk with young people about what their definition of respect looks like and how respect can look different in different classrooms.”
This concise and frequent articulation of expectations is important for students in that it clearly defines the boundaries of the moral discipline they have to exhibit. However, the work doesn’t stop there. The schools also implemented a Tier I, II, and III model meant to help staff determine which students needed more help and where. A specific percentage of students are expected to be served through each tier to assist the school in planning.
All of the students in the school can expect to participate in community-building events, like the one that resulted in the positive phone conversation. Humble had pulled a student into her office not to correct a behavior, but rather to award the student and his parent for positive behavior.
Through each of the tiers, students learn and are equipped with strategies for handling a variety of situations, both positive and negative. Thus, schools not only articulate values but actively assist students in living them out.
Early data assessment points toward success. Humble says that negative office referrals are down. Over time the district hopes to generate “30 percent reductions in acts of aggression . . . 6 and 12 percent increases in results of the climate surveys done in schools . . . [and] 50 percent reduction in classroom disruptions,” says the Daily Press.
This deliberate approach to school climate is supported by research from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. The School Cultures and Student Formation Project explored how the policies and practices of schools impacted students.
The findings are found in The Content of Their Character. Editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write, “The commitments and beliefs inculcated by the school may or may not be articulated, but they are nonetheless promoted and reinforced in school settings . . . [S]chool practices are as important as words. How a school is organized, the course structure and classroom practices . . . all of these matter in the moral and civic formation of the child.”
When Jennifer Humble makes calls to parents to tell them that their child has been sent to the principal for a “positive office referral,” she is strengthening the bond between home and school, as well as encouraging the child’s efforts in demonstrating good character. The coalition of family and school—among other civic institutions that shape children—provides the stability that children need for continued growth in character.
The Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues has a School Ethos Self-Evaluation Framework to help schools that are committed to character evaluate their progress in building that school ethos.